On power

I find myself wanting to write about power today. I suppose it is partly because I am internally grappling with the juxtaposition of Pope Francis and the election wrangling in Zimbabwe. I’ll focus on the former, and let you make your own comparisons. I have blown away by the impact that Pope Francis has made. In the last few weeks he has been named person of the year by Vanity Fair and has been the topic of articles in popular magazines like Esquire. There are still Vatican scandals aplenty, but Pope Francis remains an inspiration.

Power, in a social sense, is the capacity to influence people.

In this sense Pope Francis seems to have tremendous power. Stories and articles about him continue to flood social media, and even mainstream media has continued to give stories with a positive flavor column inches. And yet, whilst it is difficult to tell from this distance, I get the feeling that if something were to happen which meant he had to step down that he would be happy enough to relinquish the position and to retire gracefully into obscurity and simplicity. It may be that I am projecting my interpretation of Ignatian indifference onto him, but I don’t think so.

The more important question which emerges for me is – how do I wield power in my own life? Do I cling to the scraps that I have, or do I hold them loosely? Do I use my power for the benefit of the community I serve or for my own purposes?

We don’t magically acquire integrity and authenticity once we get to positions of power, we have to exercise these things now. If we don’t attend to the needs of those below us on the ladder now, what do we think is going to change once we have more power?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

It doesn’t matter what your arena is – just make sure that you are in there doing your bit – using the power that you do have for the benefit of the community. And when you think you could do a better job than someone else, be willing to step up and take your turn.

Ignatian indifference

Ignatian indifference is not an easy concept – it is the capacity to hold the desire for something along with a sense of freedom with respect to the same thing. When I am trying to explain indifference, I usually use the example of sitting in the Loyola Hall chapel the night before I was going to be interviewed for a job there. As I sat talking to God, I recognised that I wanted this job more than anything I had ever wanted in my life before – this was the dream that I had thought I would be working towards for at least another decade suddenly within my grasp. As I sat and talked to God about my desire for the job, I began to notice that even with the intensity of desire, that God and I would be okay if I didn’t get the job. Of course I would have been disappointed, but I was willing to let God be God in the process. On that night, I really was able to see that I might not get the job, but that had nothing to do with my giftedness as a spiritual director, or my sense of call to that ministry. In other words, that failure to get the job would not have been a personal failure.

I believe that the experience of that kind of indifference or freedom is grace. It is not a state I can will myself into and it is usually temporary. Nonetheless it is vitally important because it allows for the healthy separation between success in particular venture and my relationship with God. Even if we consciously avoid the prosperity gospel messages which suggest that material wealth is indicative of a right relationship with God, it is easy to fall for the more subtle message that success is somehow predicated upon or linked to the quality of my relationship with God. So failure becomes very difficult, because not only do I have to deal with the reality of failure, but it has a major impact on the very place I would turn for solace – prayer. It also allows for the separation between success and my image of myself. It is a place of real humility, knowing my own giftedness and the capacity to avoid taking the rejection or failure personally.

Ignatian indifference then, is not about a lack of passion. But it is opens the space to let God be God. It reminds me that however much I may think I know what is good for me, I don’t see the full picture. It also allows for the reality that we live in a broken world, and many circumstances require the cooperation of people, anyone of whom (including me) may be focusing on shoring up our own egos rather than focusing on the greater glory of God.

The more I explore and teach Ignatian spirituality the more I recognise the real genius of Ignatius. I am ever grateful for those who opened this door for me.

Commit wholeheartedly but be willing to let go

There is an extraordinary idea at the heart of Ignatian spirituality. It is a particular kind of freedom with respect to all things in life. It is the capacity to commit wholeheartedly to a particular task and, at the same time, be willing to let go of it. This is precisely because the ultimate purpose is deepening relationship with God. Asking questions such as ‘where is God in this?’ or ‘what is for the greater glory of God?’ becomes the guiding light, rather than ‘am I happy?’ or ‘am I making a success?’

For a Jesuit this is usually manifest in the way in which their life is lead – they are given a job for six years and then they are moved to a new job, which frequently requires a relocation to new city as well. To invest fully in the development of something to the best of one’s ability and then being willing to let go and let the next person take over is not something that many of us are terribly good at. It is not simple.

As I am slowly building my own career, slowly developing a reputation for myself, I am grateful for the opportunity to be brought back to the realisation of the importance of that strange balance. The willingness to give myself wholeheartedly to the things I believe I need to develop and yet, not to invest my ego in their success. It is so easy to get distracted by trying to build my academic career, as though that were the ultimate goal.

The truth of the matter is that right now I do believe that I am in the right place doing the right thing. But I have to be open to the possibility that there may come a time when that is no longer true. And I don’t mean that simply in terms of the university that I work at, but being an academic at all. Nevertheless, even with that consideration, I need to continue to invest in my academic career in this place wholeheartedly.

Indifference requires an ongoing commitment to discernment. A willingness to revisit the question of whether I am in the right place periodically. This is not motivated by insecurity, but by a recognition that things change over time, and what is clearly right today, may not be so forever. This is not to say that there will not be grief when the time for change comes.

Indifference requires that I invest wholeheartedly in a project, but that I hold it with open hands. Indifference requires willing to let go when the time is right in the knowledge that God and I will go on.

I write this post in gratitude for the existence of Loyola Hall, deeply saddened at the announcement of its closure in April 2014, but in full awareness of the necessity of the decision. I pray for all who have passed through its doors over the years, and for all who will be directly affected by the closure.